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The Art of Exile

By Hannah Oppenheimer

Issa Nyaphaga is known as the ragman of painting. He creates art out of garbage – anything from mud and sand to feathers and human hair. Nyaphaga gives disposed items a sort of renewal.

But his artwork represents much darker story of rebirth. Nyaphaga was raised in a small village in the equatorial forests of Cameroon. After high school, he worked as a political cartoonist for the newspaper, Le Messager Popoli. In 1994, Cameroon’s regime jailed and tortured Nyaphaga for oppositional ideas expressed in his controversial cartoons. Two years later, Nyaphaga escaped Cameroon to seek asylum in France.

Since his escape, Nyaphaga has continued his passion throughout France and the United States with the support of organizations such as freeDimensional. Nyaphaga is currently working on the development of a philosophical installation called Urban Way, which combines body paint, music and performance in a symbolic protest against his exile. The artist also created Capillarism, a painting technique in which a layer of human hair lies on the canvas beneath the paint, adding a unique texture to his work.

In addition to his own art projects, he also has taught painting courses at universities, led workshops for at-risk children and illustrated books in France. In 2002, Nyaphaga founded Hope International for the Tikar People, an organization that provides school and health care supplies, such as wheelchairs and books, to seven Tikar villages in Cameroon. He also co-founded the organization African Journalists in Exile, which supports oppressed writers. Nyaphaga has been featured in two documentaries, one – called The Pen in Exile – about his life, with a third in progress.

freeDimensional, organized by Todd Lester, Hugo Espinel and Alexandra Zobel, seeks to protect artist-activists who live in oppressive countries by providing a safe space for them to peacefully explore in their work while also participating in the global community as activists. For more information or to help this cause, visit their website.

Photo via flickr courtesy of networkcultures.

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